Landing media coverage for your organisation can help expand your influence, raise awareness of your work with the public and donors, highlight success or pressing issues and campaign for change.
It can also be hard to get. Whether you’re trying to amplify your voice via national, local or sector press, smaller organisations face the additional challenge of having fewer resources – such as time and staff – to implement a proper media strategy. So, here are a few tips to help you along the way.
Make sure it’s media-worthy
Journalists want stories. They are writing for their audience and need news-worthy information or fresh, interesting perspectives on an issue they or their publication writes about.
The information you’re offering them should be at least one of the following: new; relevant to the publication; interesting (would a member of the public go out of their way to find out about it?); human-centred (relating to people and their lives); and unexpected or unusual.
“News-worthy information” could be in the form of anything from research that sheds light on a particular area of work to a powerful quote that speaks to a relevant news topic.
Reactive or proactive?
There are different ways your voice can be heard, and there are differing levels of urgency. Reactive media does what it says on the tin. It could be in the form of a statement in reaction to a news story, a letter to the editor, an open letter which can then be written about as a story itself or an opinion piece. It’s important to know which events you’re likely to react to in advance – but more on this later.
Proactive media is a way for you to amplify news, events or stories that can elevate your organisation and help reach its goals. For example, a positive story about a new campaign. Note that with proactive media, it’s good to use first-hand accounts (aka human-interest stories) to make it relatable.
Choose the appropriate media outlet
National, local, or sector press? Print, online, broadcast? What topics do they cover? What are their editorial biases? Which outlet does the audience you are trying to reach read? What type of speakers/writers do they go for? When you’ve asked yourself these questions to find the right outlet for your story, you then need to find a relevant journalist to contact. This can be done by looking through the publication and seeing who writes about what. If you’re not sure, then an editor is a safe bet as they will delegate it to the right person.
Contacting and working with journalists
Some journalists will list their email address on their Twitter bio or in the profile on their outlet’s website, but there are also database services such as Gorkana and Vuelio that provide contact info for the media. Make sure your method of accessing a journalist’s contact information is ethical and GDPR compliant.) You can also ring through to the outlet’s switchboard and ask to be put through to said journalist.
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Bear in mind that journalists are busy, so although they may well have seen your email, it doesn’t hurt to follow up after a few days (or hours, depending on the urgency of your story). Don’t forget they work to tight deadlines, so pitch in good time – especially if you want your story out immediately. The best time to pitch will vary on what type of outlet it is, but for daily publications, avoid pitching late in the day. The best time for these would be before 11.30am, which is around the time most national newspapers have their morning conference to plan which stories they’ll run that day.
Being busy also means journalists want pitches that are pithy, informative and accurate. If you make their job as easy as possible, they’re more likely to use your story.
Journalists also love exclusivity. So, unless you’re putting out a statement in reaction to a news story, try to offer it exclusively. Make that clear when you contact them, and politely ask if they can let you know either way so that you can move it on if needs be. Give them a deadline, and if you don’t hear back from them by then, move it on. Time is precious. If they want it, you can press release the story after they’ve published it to alert the media. It’s out there now.
Build relationships with key journalists. Find out who writes about relevant topics and follow them on social media. Tag them in articles of theirs that you share online. Better yet, go one step further and – if you’re comfortable with it – invite them to meet for coffee. Send them an introductory email about who you are, what your organisation does and how you think you could be useful to them. Journalists value good sources.
These are used to disseminate information widely. Always send it in the body of an email, not as an attachment, to make the journalist’s job as easy as possible.
Write a headline that explains clearly what it is you’re telling the journalists and make clear if it is “for immediate release” or “under embargo”. Never use exclamation points in the headline, and ideally avoid in the body of the press release, too.
Keep it to one page and include roughly two paragraphs that explain the story and the context (who, what, when, where, why, how) followed by your spokesperson’s succinct and powerfully worded quote. In the attribution, include their name, full job title and organisation.
Show where your information ends with ‘ENDS’ at the bottom of your press release. Underneath that, include ‘notes to editor’ where you can list supportive information such as links to relevant reports/websites, an explanation of what your organisation is and does (keep to two-three sentences) and – very importantly – contact details. Upload it to your organisation’s website in the appropriate section, too, and tweet it if you’re on Twitter.
Statements should be attributed to one spokesperson at your organisation – usually either the CEO or a director, or if it’s quite technical then a policy expert. Make sure it’s engaging, to-the-point and conveyed clearly. Avoid jargon and never use exclamation points.
Set up an agreed and efficient media sign-off process well in advance of putting out a quote. Depending on the size of your organisation, this will generally look like: input from the relevant policy lead/adviser, approval from your spokesperson as well as someone in the leadership team (this may be one and the same).
When you’re reacting to something that’s already in the news, speed is key. Everyone involved in this process must prioritise this and act quickly – or you’ll miss your window for pickup.
To help with this, set up a calendar that lists events coming up in the year that are relevant to your organisation’s work. When you know an event is coming up that you’d possibly respond to – such as statistic findings, a report or a vote in Parliament – prepare as much as possible. For example, with a vote, you could draw up a short paragraph responding to each outcome, and then you’ll have that ready to send the moment the result is out. Part of this preparation includes ensuring you have a mailing list of journalists you’re going to send it to.
Preparation is key because in the world of news, it’s a race. News cycles move fast, and so must you. It might not even matter how great your statement is if someone else has already reached that journalist/outlet before you. To avoid being too late, send it before the reporter’s deadline.
Letter to the editor
These letters need to be short – ideally no more than 150 words. It can either be signed by one person/organisation, or several. When pitching the letter, make sure to include full name of the signatory, job role, email address and name of organisation, and make sure you have everyone’s explicit permission to use their signatures – some papers will check. Link to an article the publication has recently written about relating to the issue in the letter.
With the pitch, as ever, keep it short and to the point. It needs a hook – the thing that makes it relevant – as well as the angle, which can be explained in just a sentence. When explaining your angle, keep the outlet’s readership in mind. What will they learn from this? How will this letter make them think differently?
These are used when the content being conveyed to the recipient is worthy of wider attention. The letter itself, which gets sent to the chosen media outlet (only choose one – they work on exclusivity), must be formatted as a proper letter – including the date, your organisation’s contact details and those of the recipient at the top. Start with “Dear xxx” and sign off with “Your Sincerely”.
The most popular open letters are timely and addressed to political leaders, for example, the Foreign Secretary, but they can also address a group.
Good reasons for going down the “open letter” road include: to mount pressure or focus wider attention on the letter’s recipient, inciting them to action; to influence the public’s perception of the letter’s recipient; to influence a wider dialogue around an issue; to assert the author’s position on a specific issue.
As with pitching a letter to the editor, when you contact your chosen journalist/outlet for this, explain clearly and succinctly what the letter is about and why you’re sending it. If they are interested, you can then send them the letter in full.
Even if the letter has many signatories, only one organisation should lead the drafting of it to ensure a smoother and more time-efficient process. Once the open letter has been published, share the link/clipping with your fellow signatories so they can promote the coverage, too.
NB: Don’t forget to actually send the letter to the stated recipient(s)!
You need to grab the journalist’s attention quickly, so prove you’re pitching something they want – ideally within one or two paragraphs. Highlight the relevance of the piece to their readers (why should they care, why now?); make it clear why the author is qualified to comments on this topic; and include an extract (two or three sentences) outlining the main argument of the piece. Op-eds should be 700-800 words. Also find out what the lead times are for opinion pieces from the publication – if the issue is timely, the publication might be willing to publish it within the week, but if it is not, or if you’re struggling to get pick-up but are confident the piece is good, it would be worth holding the op-ed back until it is.
Make a noise
When your story/quote gets picked up by the media, share widely with your community. Post on social media and include relevant hashtags and tag people involved. But don’t go over the top: stick to the person at your organisation who is quoted, and perhaps the name of the journalist who wrote the piece – they’re likely to retweet/repost.
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